The ladies who laugh
Felicity Huffman is not a relationship expert, nor does she play one on TV. But that’s her name on the cover of “A Practical Handbook for the Boyfriend,” a cheeky mating manual hitting bookstores this week.
Huffman, the Emmy-winning “Desperate Housewives” star, who wrote the book with her best friend, Patricia Wolff, are aware that men don’t usually buy that kind of book. They also know that a celebrity author has a much better chance of being interviewed on “Good Morning America,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show” or, for that matter, by the L.A. Times.
Were it not for the celebrity connection, the male predisposition to avoid helpful advice (see “directions, asking for”) might have spelled commercial disaster for “A Practical Handbook for the Boyfriend.” Yet there was a publishing precedent for having one sex translate the secret language of the other. “He’s Just Not That Into You,” by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo, was a runaway hit in 2004. That book had its own pop culture cred -- its authors were alumni of the “Sex and the City” writers’ room.
“Any group of girlfriends who wonder why men don’t get it could have written their own book,” Wolff said, “and it would have been a little different from ours. Our approach was that men and women together are funny. If it’s not tragic, it’s hilarious. “
Addressing skeptics who wonder what qualifies them as authorities, the authors begin by admitting that they might not know much, but they do understand how women think. And that’s more than most men can claim. When a man famously tried to explain the difference between the genders, he wrote “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.” The way Huffman and Wolff see it, “Men are from Mars, women are from Bloomingdale’s.”
“We started writing the book because we wanted it to help guys figure women out,” Huffman said. “We weren’t presenting ourselves as experts. The book is a little bit of advice and a lot of funny. We thought women would read the book, and hopefully they’ll give it to their guys.”
Brenda Copeland did. The executive editor of Hyperion Books gave a copy to her brother. “He’s newly single,” Copeland said, “and he hasn’t a clue.”
“There are a lot of straight dating books out there that say ‘Do this and do that,’ ” Copeland said. “We liked Felicity and Patti’s book because it works the other way around. They say, ‘Here’s what women do in a relationship, and here’s why.’ ” In other words, here’s what’s actually on a woman’s mind when she asks her boyfriend whether she looks fat.
The inspiration for “A Practical Handbook for the Boyfriend” was a 20-year-old textbook on acting written by members of the Atlantic Theater Company. Through the years, Huffman and Wolff, who were founding members of the group, would sometimes wish for “A Practical Guide to Accessorizing,” or note that “A Practical Guide for the Plumber” would be useful. When they drifted into the sort of dangling conversations about the mysteries of dating that are central to most female friendships, the need for a primer for the boyfriend became clear.
They decided to commit what had long been their private running joke to paper in 2001 when Wolff, a producer, was out of work and Huffman, who is married to actor William H. Macy, had given birth to their first child. “I felt my career was over, I’d never work again,” Wolff said. “Writing the book was us trying to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps to get something going.”
Their description of their progress reveals the dynamic of their friendship:
Huffman said, “We started the book, and four years later we had 40 pages.”
Wolff chimed in, “We were busy, though.”
Huffman: “Not really, we were glacial writers.”
Wolff: “But still, you had two kids. I had a kid.”
Huffman: “Yes, but 10 pages a year? There’s no excuse for that.”
Wolff said, “Sometimes Felicity can be the voice of reason, and I’m the one who’s hard on us. We trade places, taking that role. But Felicity is always very, very disciplined. She’s a workhorse.”
Despite her dire predictions, motherhood, obviously, didn’t end Huffman’s acting career. In 2004, when her daughters were 2 and 3, she was cast in “Desperate Housewives.” During the show’s second season, she and Wolff sent their 40 pages to Hyperion President Robert Miller -- the publishing company is a unit of ABC. Hyperion found the combination of dating-for-dummies simplicity and bawdy wisdom appealing. They asked the authors to finish the book in less than six months.
“On top of us both having lives, Felicity was having the busiest professional year of her life,” Wolff said. In addition to her day job on the TV series, “Transamerica” -- the independent film in which she starred as a transgender man -- was nominated for a slew of awards, including a best actress Oscar. That meant publicity chores and umpteen hours of red carpet prep were added to her schedule.
“She would literally call me from the car on the way to the Emmys and say, ‘I just read your draft of the bla bla chapter, and here’s what I think we need to do,’ and I’d say, ‘Honey, you’re on your way to the Emmys’ and she’d say, ‘I know, but I just wanted to get this done.’ ” Huffman would rise at 5 in the morning to write before her children awoke at 6:30. “The killer was trying to write after they’d gone to bed,” she said, “because by 8:30 I’m usually a pumpkin.”
While it might have been tempting to include a digression on the mystic connection between men and their cars, the collaborators repeatedly forced themselves to return to their core idea. “We had to keep reminding ourselves that it’s for the boyfriend,” Huffman said. “For the boyfriend. It wasn’t meant to be an expose of our crazy food issues.”
Not surprisingly, for two women with theater backgrounds, the authors think like actors, and kept a man’s motivation in mind. It’s worth the effort for a guy to be a good boyfriend, they point out, because women who are treated well by men and feel kindly toward them tend to want to have sex with them. “Guys like the house cold,” they wrote. “Girls like it warm. Keep the thermostat up, and you’ll have a better chance of seeing her naked.”
Huffman has been married to Macy for nine years and was 20 when they met. There was a six-year break in their relationship, and, she said, “I’ve been dating since I was 12.” Wolff has been with her soon-to-be ex-husband for 17 years, six of them married. To supplement their experience, the authors interviewed friends and strangers.
“I’d talk to waiters, to people at the post office,” Huffman said. “I’d ask, ‘What don’t you understand about women? What drives you crazy? What about money is confusing with your girlfriend?’ People are very articulate about personal stuff.”
The book was never intended as a revenge trip, a chance to tell all their old boyfriends how they were wrong, wrong, wrong. “We really wanted our love of men to come through,” Huffman said. “The point was, we know it’s tough, not ‘what’s the matter with you guys?’ ”